A Tsunami of words about the role of art in a revolution

The ladies of “The Revolutionists” at Next Act Theatre (photo by Ross Zentner)

After the talkiest play to hit Milwaukee stages finally comes to an end, the struggle to figure out what it’s about also ends.

Instead of wonder, one is left with a sense of contentment having watched two hours of a very intelligent discussion about the role of art in a movement of social change. 

The evening is “The Revolutionists,” the latest play from the prolific Lauren Gunderson who is the most produced living playwright in America.

Gunderson’s play is focused on four women – French playwright Olympe de Gouges (Cassandra Bissell), French assassin Charlotte Corday (Eva Nimmer), French queen Marie Antioinette (Bree Beelow) and Haitain anti-slavery activist Marianne Angelle (Lea Dutchin). Only the character of Marianne is fictional.

The nexus of this play is Ms. de Gouges, the playwright who is currently without a play. “I’m not blocked,” she says. “I’m just…mentally…hibernating.”

The three other women arrive at Ms. de Gouges’ chambers, all in search of help, thus posing the question of what role art plays in a revolution. 

Ms. Angelle arrives first, announcing her intention to spy on France and send the intelligence home to Haiti. She wants to enlist Ms. de Gouges to write political pamphlets for her movement. 

Ms. Corday arrives next, announcing her plan to assassinate Jean-Paul Marat, a leader of the ultra-violent revolutionary Jacobin forces. She is in search of final words she can use when standing under the guillotine awaiting her punishment. 

Finally Marie Antoinette arrives, fresh from her dethroning and headed to her beheading. She wants a rewrite in order to be restored to her position as monarch.

Director Laura Gordon has wisely let the play and the torrent of words flow unfettered. A play about a playwright writing a play can be a treacherous voyage, especially since the currency of any play is the words on the page. 

But Ms. Gordon resists any temptation to clutter up the flow of language with miscellaneous gimmicks to break up the torrent. She lets the tsunami swap the audience unabated and leaves it to Ms. Gunderson to keep us engaged. 

Ms. Gunderson is not only a wonderful playwright, but she is also very funny. Some of the jokes in this play can be a little overbearing. A continuing joke is the one about “who wants to see a musical about the French revolution?” (Hello Les Miserables).

But the biggest  thing that saves this from becoming some kind of feminist diatribe is the performance of this wonderful cast of actors. 

Ms. Bissell is the personification of the artist at work …one step forward, two steps backward. She eagerly grasps hold of each new idea, shakes its tree, and then discards it to embrace yet another idea.  She is an actor of immense range and can switch from earnest pursuit to humorous gadfly in the blink of an eye.

Ms. Dutchin is every passionate revolutionary you have ever met. She is single-minded and devoted to her cause yet she has the depth to be torn between her lover and her love. 

Ms. Nimmer is a dichotomy. On the one hand she looks like the cute kid next door who babysits for your kids. The other side of her coin is the cold-blooded assassin who has a detailed plan to stab Marat to death while he lounges in his medicinal bath. 

And finally there is Ms. Beelow, clad in a royal gown topped with a silver wig that almost scrapes the ceiling. She is an actor who can marry sympathy-demanding sorrow with flighty arrogance and make each genuine. She and Ms. Bissell stage a master class in comedic timing. One moment you can’t stop laughing at them and the nest Ms. Beelow makes you want to give her a hug and tell her it’s going to be alright.

When the evening wraps up there is no doubt that the art world has both a chance and a responsibility in every revolution. As a wise man once said, “…and the artist shall lead them.”

That’s the fun and enjoyment of “The Revolutionists.”

Cast:  Olympe de Gouges,Cassandra Bissell; Charlotte Corday; Eva Nimmer; Marie Antioinette,Bree Beelow; Marianne Angelle, Lea Dutchin.

Production credits: Director, Laura Gordon; Scenic Designer, Samantha Gribben; Lighting Designer, Marisa Abbott; Costume Designer, Jason Orlenko; Sound Designer, David Cecsarini; Properties Master, Heidi Salter; Stage Manager Jessica Connelly. 


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